The Evolution of Religious Thought: The Genesis of Credulity


            The Evolution of Religious Thought is a small project I’ve been working on for a few months.  Although it’s not exhaustive, I feel is fairly representative of the path religion has taken since our primal days.  Because the scope of this project has increased, it has become larger than conventionally accepted on blogs, so I have divided it into sections.  The first of which – The Genesis of Credulity – is being shared now.  As I finalize the remaining sections, I will post them and provide links to their predecessors / successors, as applicable.

As always, I encourage discussion and invite questions.  Once the final product is complete, I will release a comprehensive version which will include a bibliography.  Thanks!

The Genesis of Credulity

The evolution of religious thought has reached a crux; how fortunate that its future lay not in the hands of those who wish to see it prevail, but in the minds of the critical.  Man’s reason has been shackled by centuries of compulsive irrationality, but he is inching towards freedom, towards reality, and towards the truth.  With the development and improvement of the scientific method, superstition has been relegated to the diminishing gaps of human knowledge.  Thus, where superstition was once needed, it is now superfluous; we progress without it, as Laplace so eloquently affirmed – Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.  Despite being incongruous with historical observation, an infectious inclination to award human achievement to illusory entities has proved to be obdurately persistent.  To comprehend such repugnant behavior requires us to examine the genesis of credulity, and to render it obsolete we must perform a cognitive inoculation.

Therefore this study must commence by investigating the relatives of today’s most successful hominidae; and in doing so, we shall find that like us they too demanded explanations for phenomena that surrounded them.  Yet, one major exception separates us from our primitive cousins: contemporary standards of substantiation are considerably higher – mostly.

When animism was applied to everything, and the concept of falsifiable evidence had not yet occurred to our much simpler brethren, explanations were accepted with little skepticism.  Those few who dared to doubt were easily silenced since refutation requires a counter-explanation, and when both arguments are operating on unsubstantiated speculation, the consensus was to reward the supernatural rather than allowing for ambiguity.  That is, it is human nature to assign reason to common experiences, even if that reason is purely speculative.

In consequence of this disposition, supernatural explanations are not only successful, they become indisputable.  For how does one dispute a supernatural process?  If the process cannot be verified, evidence to the contrary is equally deficient.  Carl Sagan described this predicament as our “impatience with ambiguity [which] can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  This overtly facile approach to explaining the natural world is fundamental to the invention of supernatural agents.  Likewise, it contributed greatly to man’s hubris with respect to his perceived uniqueness.

Resulting from this unfortunate proclivity, man found answers for everything: earthquakes, winds, rains, solar eclipses, the vicissitudes of the seasons, dreams, death and life itself.  It’s also worth noting that there was rarely a distinction between the physical and metaphysical.  In fact, men who performed priestly duties were often divine themselves, and worshiped as such.  It was not until man began to form communities that we see the inception of spiritual realms; and even then the line was unclear.

This shift from an all-encompassing reality to a dichotomy system – a world separated by physical and metaphysical realms – opened the opportunity for authoritative exploitation.  Simply stated, as the early cast of spirits lost their appeal and influence, a corresponding increase of divine mandates inundated early societies from reinvented and enhanced entities.  But this new system was often times convoluted.  For instance, the etymology of Zeus can be traced to an Indo-European heritage; its root originally meant “to shine”.  Zeus was eventually enhanced, which extended his supremacy beyond the clouds, lightning and thunder, to the sky itself.  His existence consisted of both physical and metaphysical properties, such as Mount Olympus – a physical peak, yet inaccessible to uninvited mortals.

Accordingly, as these sentient beings were progressively denied access to their gods – a direct correlation with their exodus from nature – an alternative connection to the spirit world was required.  Naturally, this union held significant sway over the devout, and it’s no surprise that we find priestly duties entwined with regal command.  Such is the case throughout Italy as exemplified by titles such as Rex Sacrificulus, a title held by Rome’s kings but maintained by citizen priests after the Tarquins were banished from Rome.

Because an ancient king often served as his people’s direct conduit with the gods – indeed, sometimes they were gods themselves – the majority could be coaxed into battle or persuaded to remain content, depending on the vague interpretation of auspices.  This is no secret.  For as long as men have struggled to control the masses, religion has aided them.  The Greeks made war and peace depending on the outcome of auspices; ominous shrieks from birds could result in a senator’s impeachment in Rome; and later, when paganism lost its influence over the Western world, verses such as Ephesians 6:5 kept Christian slaves obedient and content.

However, all men were not so easily convinced. They demanded more evidence than the assurances of those who benefited from this worldview. Our inquiring minds propelled the curious and adventurous alike to seek out these deities.  They searched the woods, but Medeina was nowhere to be found; they travelled up rivers, but Yam failed to reveal himself; they climbed high mountains, but Uma refused audience.  Centuries full of empty tales caused the analytical to reject the old gods, and so, these deities were required to be reinvented again.

Go to The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion

Categories: Religion

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25 replies

  1. As long as man couldn’t explain the world around him, there has and always will be room for the supernatural.
    The vast majority do not realize resorting to the supernatural does not answer any question and makes even answering questions impossible.

    • Some of us realize that we will likely never explain “everything”. To those who do, two lines of thought emerge: motivation to discover the next mystery, or justification to give up and point towards the supernatural. Personally, I think the former line of thought is gaining ground among today’s children.

      • The best thing that happens to some of us is to discover the universe is intelligible and the mysteries knowable. We remove the supernatural hypothesis and continue to live meaningful lives in this horrible universe

    • Correct, and this is called the God of the gaps

  2. An amazing post! Littered with gems like this, “For as long as men have struggled to control the masses, religion has aided them.” Well-done. Can’t wait for the follow-ups. I am writing a book on the immoral exportations of religion onto society, might I use some quotes from this post (and perhaps the follow-ups)?

  3. “how fortunate that its future lay not in the hands of those who wish to see it prevail, but in the minds of the critical”

    LOVE it!

    Brilliant post! A feast for the eyes and the mind.

  4. “Belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.”
    Robert Anton Wilson

    Like Mr. Wilson, I do not believe in belief.

    There is relatively new archaeological evidence, gathered from a site in turkey, Gobekli Tepe, which casts new light upon the emergence of the hierarchic religious institution.

    “Klaus Schmidt, now a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), has been working the Göbekli Tepe site since 1994.
    Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies.
    Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it.”

    I would further posit that this shift in perception was likely engineered or, at the very least, co-opted and nurtured by the earliest ancestors of those families that today control the international banking cartel and thereby the ostensible governments of the world. During the Neolithic Revolution, they set us on a one-way street of unnatural, self-worshiping materialism, which has led us ultimately to the brink of extinction.

    • As always Richard, your comments are full of insight and I sincerely appreciate them. I already read your work on powerful families, but I didn’t connect the Gobekli Tepe site. That said, because it’s so closely related to this essay, I’ll have to look into it and perhaps revise my conclusion. It’s a fascinating discovery!

      I think I would lean towards co-opted and nurtured more than engineered. To me, it’s much more reasonable to picture attentive individuals taking advantage and fostering a system that is already established, rather than engineering a system from scratch.

      On a side note, I hope you decide to start writing again. I really enjoy your work; it’s full of information and you’re a passionate writer.

      • Thank you R.L. It’s always a pleasure engaging in discussion that can further my endless eduction.

        By all means, dig deeper into Gobekli Tepe and, especially, Ponerology. Everyone who wanders is not necessarily lost.

        I can see the origin of religion either way. I’ve not really come to a conclusion one way or the other. I find it helpful to hold at least two differing points of view simultaneously. For me, it’s the only way to come to something approximating a satisfactory conclusion.
        Every good answer should always provoke new questions.

        Again, thanks. I haven’t really stopped writing. I’m just not very prolific at this time. There are many reasons, not the least of which being the fact that I am the care-giver for my father, who is 89 and suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy.

        Another major factor would be that I don’t like repeating myself. All the things that were important and going wrong 50 years ago are the same now as they were then. Only now they are critical and most have gone beyond the point of now return.

        Nonetheless, there are a few things I’ve been working on. They should be appearing fairly soon.

  5. The evolution of religious thought reached a crux… in about 33AD. (Unintentional etymological puns for the win!)

  6. this is brilliant. this subject is very close to my heart, part of my personal journey, and also closely related to my coming thesis work in grad school… i read it last night and re-read this morning. wonderful insights here. this informs me. thank you.

    • Thank you, Eddie. I have two more sections complete minus some final editing, etc. As I prefaced, it’s not exhaustive, but fairly representative. At some point I’ll rewrite most of it to encompass a more robust perspective, but I’m simply too busy right now. I’m glad it’s provided some insight – that was the point.

      Out of curiosity, what is the subject of your thesis?

      • “The Challenge of Monotheism” — monotheism’s inherent strength being its unifying of people through worship of a singular God, with singular ideals and purposes. Yet this strength, carries an built in weakness–a tendency towards extreme fascism in religion. All or nothing in or out. God becomes an excuse to murder. A reason to devalue and stop listening to others. The strength and weakness are tied, inseparable, and to accept the strengths of monotheism, we must face honestly the challenge toward an absolutist mentality. I have my one page Abstract, its a draft, but if you’re interested, I’d be honored to have feedback on my argument.

  7. These are very brief articles, with clearly a lot of reading and thought, if not documented research. I posted a couple of articles some time ago that explore the same thoughts in much more depth, and are now the basis for a book I’m writing. You may be interested to peruse them.

    • Thank you, Don. It seems we both have the same intentions with respect to our blogs. I am writing these as drafts, so that I can gather criticisms. I will definitely take a look at your posts. Thanks for commenting!


  1. The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion « R. L. Culpeper
  2. A Terse Explanation for the Enduring Nature of Religion « R. L. Culpeper
  3. The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion Part II « R. L. Culpeper

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